Monday, September 15, 2014

Chicago-style Buddhism: A Review of Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D.



What questions would I like to have addressed concerning Buddhism? What perspectives would I find most helpful in better understanding Buddhist tradition and practice? What do the author and I share on our paths toward Buddhism? Let me offer a checklist and apply it to this book. 

How did the author first come into contact with Buddhism? 

Like many Western Buddhists, I first came to understand the fundamentals of the dharma by reading books. Most Western Buddhists have grown up in families that were monotheistic, culturally speaking, and we discovered our Buddhism via the printed word rather than at the neighborhood temple or war or shrine.

Stephen T. Asma. Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey (Kindle Locations 45-46). Kindle Edition.

Check.

How does the author perceive Buddhism? 

Buddhism is not a set of beliefs to be adopted by faith, but a set of practices and beliefs to be tested and then employed in our pursuit of the good life.

Id. 64-66
Check.

How does the author address the issue of temptation? 

The trained mind can rise above distraction and craving, but the normal mind is fraught with temptations, agitations, and diversions. The idea of not looking at a beautiful woman (or man) when we are clearly drawn in that direction may sound rather puritanical. But the point of the simile is not to denigrate beauty, but to isolate the tension between natural inclination and discipline. It is perfectly natural to look at beautiful people, and Buddhism doesn't require the forfeit of such trouble-free pleasures. I suspect that our very biology ensures that we'll take a quick gander at any attractive prospect, and such radar abilities probably had some evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. But if I simply cannot help myself from gawking at a stunning model on the street, then I have overturned a division of labor inside myself. I have become the servant of my desire, rather than being the master of my desire. I am being led, rather than leading.

Id. 90-95

Check. (And would I ever have such a problem? Please, no speculations here. I disavow any admissions against interest.) For mere mortals, the issue of desire is the crucial issue in life, is it not? How do we attain our desires? Should we attain our desires? How much should we pay for our desires, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of time, energy, effect on relationships, and so on? 

Does this author share a perspective with Robert Wright and me that Buddhism (and aspects of other traditions as well) is intended to overcome inheritances from natural selection that don’t work in a civilized society? 

Buddhism attempts to give us a second nature-one that writes over the old genetic and psychological code.

Id. 98
Check. 

Does the author come from a religious tradition that I can identify with? 

I was ripe for such communion because I had been raised as a devout Catholic. Some people think that the conventional and conservative experience of Catholicism and the eccentric, lefty spiritualism of hippy culture are worlds apart. But, in fact, Catholics have a deep sense of mystery in the very belly of their religion. Unlike most Protestants, Catholics give themselves over to the irrational mystery, miracle, and authority. There is an undeniably conventional and institutional aspect of Catholicism, but beneath its traditionalism is a robust mystical approach to God. When I was in primary and middle school I was an altar boy and even a lector. When I began to ask philosophical questions in my early teens, my blue-collar parents knew of no other outlet for such precocious intellectualism except perhaps the priesthood. I was dutifully driven to the local seminary to meet with priests and be interviewed to see if I had the calling. I didn't.

Id. 157-163

Check. Indeed, one of my friends was once a candidate for the priesthood and now finds himself in the Buddhist camp. (N.B. Perhaps because of my Presbyterian father, or perhaps the local priest sensed that I’d was far too randy, I was never recruited. After all, the priest heard my confessions: one impure thought after another.)

Did the author explore traditions other than his native Catholicism and Buddhism? 

I . . .  graduated to a tougher-minded mysticism, reading Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, and Thomas Merton.

Id. 191-192 

Check. Merton, by the way, was a Catholic monk who explored the Buddhist and Daoist traditions and wrote eloquently about his encounters with them from his position as a Trappist monk.

If we reject the metaphysics of the monotheistic religions, is there another path that shows the way to a good life and that provides some sense of spiritual wholeness? 

Many people like myself come to Buddhism through the arts, because crafts, arts, and even meticulous chores can be expressions of spirituality. The secular and the sacred are collapsed in Zen, and that is a very attractive integration for many of us who are dissatisfied with the two-world thesis of most religions.

Id. 324-325
Check. 

Can the author explain the different types and processes of Buddhist mediation?
Check. He does. 

Does the author recognize the affinity between Buddhism and some of the Western tradition, such the thought of Spinoza? 

The Dutch/Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) offered a very Buddha-like theory (despite having never heard of the Buddha) of human happiness through intellectual enlightenment. In his famous Ethics (part V), he says that when the mind comes to understand the real causes of things—how some things could not have been otherwise and simply lie outside the realm of our control—then we cease to worry and fret over them.

Id. 724-725

Check. 

Does the author recognize the affinity between Buddhism and Stoicism?

Buddhism, like Stoicism in the West, seeks to reduce suffering, in part, by managing human emotions. There are several tactics for getting one's emotions under control. One tactic that both Buddhism and Stoicism recommend is the adoption of the long-range perspective. I'll refer to this as eon perspective. When we are feeling overwhelmed by anger, or despair, or fear, the Buddha asks us to think about the impermanence of our problems and ourselves. Similarly, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius asks us to contemplate the human drama of families, cities, and even nations that lived hundreds of years ago. They all did just as we do. They married, worked jobs, had children, loved and lost, felt great joys, killed each other, and engaged in every other emotional human endeavor. But, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, "Of all that life, not a trace survives today." It will be no different with the dramas of our own generation.

Id. 869-874

Check. Asma also notes an affinity with Epicurus, so gets even more points on my score chart. I’ve yet to find a careful, book-length exposition about the correlations between Buddhism and Classical philosophy, which someone with more skills and knowledge (and time and money) than me ought to write. 

All of these thinkers can be very austere. I cherish my loved-ones, my family, my friends. Do I have to surrender all of these relationships and go live in a forest monastery to avoid all attachments? 

Does this mean that I cannot be attached to my son? Well, if that's what it means, then I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist. No, I think the Buddha is pointing out something that we all understand at some level. He means, rather, that I cannot possess my son.

Id. 784-786

Check. I understand that. 

I know that modern science gives us the most concrete, tangible knowledge of nature. It’s far from complete, and it’s imperfect, but between a belief taken on faith, custom, or an ancient metaphysics, and natural science, I’ll take natural science. So do I have to surrender that choice to follow a Buddhist path? 

One of the reasons why I'm a Buddhist is because Buddhism makes friends of the sciences, and the sciences are the best methods we have for understanding nature.
. . . .
For Buddhism and for science, the mind is a natural rather than a supernatural entity.
. . . .
Buddhism and science share a similar approach to phenomena, an approach that can be called naturalism. Naturalism rejects (or at least brackets) supernatural explanations of the world and its occupants (e.g., us). Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not find itself in the awkward position of having to reconcile the metaphysical assertions of faith with the experimental findings of science.
Id. 879-881; 988-989; 1064-1066

Check. The natural world doesn’t make sense without Darwin, Einstein, and the quantum thinkers, to mention just a few fields of investigation. 

What about karma and reincarnation? That stuff seems pretty spooky to me, at least in some sense. 

[T]he only really compelling interpretation of karma—one that doesn't conflict with science—is the radical reinterpretation that asks us to think about karma as a psychological fact rather than a metaphysical one. For example, it is possible to say that one's early lack of mental control and discipline results in a later batch of suffering—perhaps I never disciplined my cravings for fast food as a young man, and now I'm an obese older man who lives like a slave to French-fries. Or my younger taste for drama and negative attention has resulted in a later relationship pattern wherein I only try to date married women. This more naturalized version of karma is the only one that seems reasonably defensible.

Id. 1123-1128

Check. Although some Western Buddhist thinkers, I believe, would argue with this limited conception of karma and reincarnation, such as B. Alan Wallace. However, this more conservative approach is the easiest to accept and incorporate into our life and thought. 

Let’s go back to the austerity and detachment thing for a moment—such scary words! What about some of the good things in life, like art? Must we surrender our appreciation for beauty and meaning to non-attachment? 

Appreciating art and making art are meditations that liberate us from self-absorption.
….
I think the role of art is especially important in Buddhism, because Buddhism embraces a nondualistic metaphysics. In some supernatural religious frameworks art is a gateway or communication to a divine realm, but in Buddhism the artistic experience is "naturalized" like everything else. This is why Buddhists have always been more interested in the psychology of art. Art is a meditation that brings one in contact with the formless nondiscursive mind. So, it's not a mere communication with a transcendent reality, it is a transcendent reality. As an analogy, I think "memory" becomes more important in the secular Confucian framework of the Chinese, because there is no supernatural immortality—only an "afterlife" in the memories of your descendants.

Id. 1064-1066; 1173-1177

Check. In fact, Buddhist art runs a gamut from the detailed intricacy of the Tibetan tradition to the negative fields of a Zen garden. As Asma notes: 

Mandalas, for example, are wonderful examples of the Indian idea (in both Hinduism and Buddhism) that the macrocosm can be found inside the microcosm. To paraphrase Gottfried Leibniz, "every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe." And in Tibetan Buddhism the mandalas also convey the Buddhist teaching of impermanence (anicca), because when the elaborate and agonizing sand-paintings are finally finished, they are immediately and intentionally swept away and destroyed. . .  . [T]he Far Eastern traditions of Daoism and Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, have turned away from the spiraling complexity of forms. Negative space and the aesthetics of minimalism help to convey the equally powerful emptiness.
 
Id. 1189-1192

Check. 

Can Buddhism help me deal with the difficult people (or chose your more apt and colorful description) that I struggle with? I need help!

If I don't feel genuine kindness (metta) toward the bully who's browbeating me, that's understandable—but I can still act as if I feel it. There's nothing disingenuous about this. We're so hung up by our Romantic ideas about acting from our authentic feelings, and expressing ourselves authentically, that we forget how new habits of behavior can slowly transform our internal habits of the heart.
. . . .
Spinoza noticed the same thing and gave the same reasons for recommending the goodwill strategy. "He who lives according to the guidance of reason strives, as far as he can, to repay the other's hate, anger, and disdain toward him, with love or nobility" (Ethics IV.46).

Id. 1419-1421; 1458-1459

Can that work? 

Spinoza, like the Buddha, adds that a kind and noble person will be more joyful (because joy is a harmonic state of the healthy psyche), so such a person will be more powerful and effective in pursuit of his goals.

Id. 1461-1462

Check. It seems like it can work--most of the time.

But what if either on a personal level or on a political level, returning loving-kindness to mistreatment or exploitation doesn’t stop profound harm, even death? 

[T]he overall critique-Buddhism is too peaceful-is worth examining. . . . The Buddha and the dharma also represent sources of strength. Power is necessary, because life is struggle. Even the ultimate goal of detached equanimity can only come after substantial struggle.

Id. 1740-1741; 1748-1749

Stop! Only half-credit (I don’t know how to give a “half-check”). Buddhism, even less than Christianity, doesn’t have a complete and compelling theory of politics to govern political actors on issues of war and peace. This challenge isn’t unique to Asma. As far as I know, Buddhism simply doesn’t have an articulated theory of politics. Islam melds politics into religion, and this can lead to great problems, as we see around the world today. Christianity skirts the issue with the doctrine of the Two Swords (sacred and secular) and the Two Cities (St. Augustine), which are based on a couple of sayings in the Gospels that provide a shaky foundation for any definitive doctrines. Among those who call themselves Christians, we see a spectrum that runs from pacifist to warmonger. I believe that the tragic, ironic, and realist views of Reinhold Niebuhr and Max Weber (commenting from a secular perspective) provide the most compelling responses to these ethical concerns, but no easy answers. I don’t know that Buddhism offers any authoritative answers. Someone, help me here! (I will be investigating the work of William (Patrick) Ophuls, Western political scientist-philosopher and Buddhist practitioner-teacher. I will report what I find in his work The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, which includes an essay on “The Politics of Meditation”.) 

The author came to my attention in the NYT writing an article about John Dewey’s pragmatism and its reception in China, where the Asma has lived and taught. So how does contemporary China relate to Buddhism? 

In previous ages, one would, if gripped by a philosophical mood, simply turn to the great indigenous works of Chinese intellectual culture: Kongzi's (Confucius's) Analects, Laozi's Daodejing, the Buddha's Sutras, and so forth. But these days such fountains of wisdom are like trickling rivulets in the landscape of religious competition, and the Christian Bible is often more readily available to the average spiritual searcher.

Id. 1823-1825

Check, but I’d like more. I suspect an entire book—or more—could be written about culture, ethics, and religions now afield in China and how these are changing—as the very landscape is changing—at a dizzying speed. What ethics work for hyper-capitalism, hyper-consumerism with Chinese characteristics?  

But can I retain what’s valuable in my Western Christian-liberal tradition if I take this Buddhist path? 

Buddhism, like Christianity, pushes us away from the natural biases of human nature-it pushes us beyond the usual concentric circles of value that surround our own families and seeks to expand the circle to include all people, all animals, all beings. The West has been pursuing this same model, in secular form, for several centuries now. We can trace the development from Luther's Reformation up through Enlightenment Kantian morality that asked us to treat all people equally as "ends in themselves" rather than "means" to some end. And after Immanuel Kant, we have the utilitarian tradition that asked us to maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and finally the "fairness" philosophy of John Rawls and the rejection of personal bias, nepotism, favoritism, preferential treatment, and partiality. Discordant on almost every other point of comparison, Buddhism, Christianity, and Western liberalism all make strange bedfellows on this one point of egalitarianism.

Id.1859-1860
Check. 

Finally, I like red meat and I cannot lie. Must I limit myself to rabbit food if I want to follow the Buddhist path? Can I follow a Chicago diet of brats and beer? 

Animal suffering is to be avoided at all costs. But the idea that Buddhists have always been, and always should be, vegetarians is pure myth. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, ate meat—he even died eating meat.[SNG: not a great plug for Buddhist meat-eating.] My Buddhist friends in Cambodia eat meat. Most Tibetan Buddhists eat meat. Meat, contrary to popular opinion, is not the problem for Buddhists. The problem is causing unneeded pain to animals, so if we can kill them humanely, then the ethical transgression is averted. In the West these days, you will meet many Buddhists who are smug lettuce-nibblers, and that's fine. But be assured, it is not Buddhism per se that compels their diet.

Id. 300-304

Check, thankfully. I didn’t see anything about whiskey except in the title, but I take the ban on intoxicants to be a ban on intoxication, so a beer or glass of wine—or whiskey if you’re made of sterner stuff than I am—seems to me okay.

I trust that it comes as no surprise that at the end of this review I say that I enjoyed and benefited from this book a great deal. It’s always nice to meet a fellow seeker exploring the same paths.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Decline & Fall in the 21st Century: A Review of Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail by William Ophuls



Perhaps it started with a place called Manti, located in the countryside outside of my home town of Shenandoah. It had a small pond for fishing and a cemetery. The untended gravestones from the late 19th century lay overwhelmed by the exuberant grasses and weeds. You could walk among those gravestones, looking at the dates of birth and deaths of those long dead residents, and then look around and you see nothing but Nature. A village of the dead. 

I’m not alone in holding a fascination with the sense of ruin. Visits to Anasazi ruins in New Mexico; to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Guatemala; to those of the Incas in Peru; to the abandoned Moghul city of Fatapur Sikri in India; to the Coliseum and Forum in Rome—one never finds oneself alone. Crowds swarm through the great ruins. We behold and contemplate. The list of ruins is like a school’s honor roll of deceased alumni and serves as a haunting memento mori writ large. For us, for our civilization. 

For those interested in decay, decline, collapse—the terms vary but the experience remains—the sources are legion. Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, and just about every series political thinker in the Western canon addresses this issue. Medieval Islam gives us the insights of Ibn Khaldun, while the Enlightenment provides us with Gibbon. In the 20th century, we have Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin among a host of others, many of them writing today, such as Peter Turchin. Francis Fukuyama will publish a new volume at the end of this month entitled Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. The parade of reflection on this phenomenon continues. Some—those with the courage to look at our present situation and consider the real binds that we face—have a grim message for us. Such is the case with William (a/k/a Patrick) Ophuls. 

I recently reviewed Plato’s Revenge, which assumes the decline of our contemporary industrial civilization and that provides a guidebook of sorts about how we should model the successor to our civilization. In Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (2013) Ophuls argues that decline is inevitable—discoveries of new fossil fuel reserves or reductions in climate change magnitude notwithstanding. It’s here. It’s happening. It’s happened before. And there are several reasons why. It’s like going to the doctor feeling young, fit, and trim, and she concludes the exam by telling you that you’re going to die. That’s an inarguably true statement. Sooner or later, you’re going to die. The difference with Dr. Ophuls is that he believes that his patient (industrial civilization) has already reached civilizational senility and that we’d best get our affairs in order to make life better for our heirs. He’s right. 

Dr. Ophuls—and he really is a doctor—of the Ph.D. in political science variety—identifies several disease processes that doom our civilization as they have doomed those before us. Ophuls does not develop any new or unique theories of civilizational decline in his book, but he does an excellent job of identifying and arguing the existing theories. Also, as a good social scientist or historian, he doesn’t wed himself to a single, grand theory, but he appreciates that a multiple causes drive the process of change. He begins his diagnosis, as he began Plato’s Revenge, with the basic science involved. 

Entropy, ecology, and complexity all entail natural, physical limits on human capacities. Each level of analysis—physical, biological, and social—faces tangible constraints. At the most basic level, entropy requires any life form to feed upon outside sources of energy. Whether for our bodies or for our machines, we must constantly tap new sources of energy. But the law of entropy establishes that energy degrades when used (chaos replaces order) and that eventually traditional energy sources will not yield a sufficient return on the investment needed to gather and use the energy. As Ophuls notes, Joseph Tainter builds his entire theory of civilizational collapse on the increasing marginal cost of a unit of energy, or conversely, on the declining energy return on investment (EROI). Complexity may delay, but cannot avoid, this conundrum. But complexity, too, has its limits: those implicit in the environment and in the human brain. 

As Ophuls notes: 

. . . .  [O]ur minds and language are linear and sequential , but systems happen all at once and overwhelm us intellectually: Systems surprise us because our minds like to think about single causes neatly producing single effects. We like to think about one or at most a few things at a time…. But we live in a world in which many causes routinely come together to produce many effects.
. . . .
In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing complex systems. What they can neither understand nor predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure is inevitable at some point.

Ophuls, William (2012-12-28). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (p. 37). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.

In addition to our limited cognitive ability to encompass the complexity of systems, we also have the problem that we’re incarnate human beings with some—shall we say?—unfortunate traits that are only overcome—if at all—through a great deal of effort. And effort, the struggle for civilization, for civility, invariably decreases as civilizations grow more prosperous. Add to this the ordinary traits of humans and we can see our problem. Ophuls quotes Edmund Burke: 

History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetite.

Ophuls, William (2012-12-28). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (p. 54). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition, quoting Burke (citation in notes)

Add to this the fact the humans are “are not innately wise, especially in crowds” (id. 41)(to put in mildly) and that democracy, at its worst, crowd sources difficult political problems to a less than qualified and informed electorate. With this situation, you have the making of a cascade of troubles on the horizon. Politicians are driven to the lowest denominator of popular prejudices and provide bread and circuses, entitlements and inflation, to stave off discontent. The ability to say “no” and to reason together all but disappears. Sound familiar? 

Ophuls concludes his reflections about the Ponzi-scheme of civilization (“as a process, civilization resembles a long-running economic bubble.” Id. 9.) with the observation that our civilization—industrial civilization—is nearly universal. This near universality (well, really speaking just of Earth) means that nowhere in this world of ours will we find an apparent successor of equal power and glory to replace industrial civilization. No Rome to replace Greece, no Byzantium to preserve Rome. We face a new Dark Ages. Can we avoid this? 

Ophuls notes that Ian Morris, in his Why the West Rules—ForNow (the title belies the scope, magnitude, and sophistication of the work) concludes with the idea that we will either gain “The Singularity” of technological and cognitive control of our environment and our history, or we will descend into the collapse of “Nightfall”. But before plunging into Morris, ThomasHomer-Dixon, or Joseph Tainter (if you haven’t already)—or even if you have—I recommend this brief and incisive primer about how we’re in for a rough ride ahead, just like our ancestors.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Back to the Future: A Review of Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology by Patrick (William) Ophuls



Every once in a while you read a book and think, “Gosh, that’s the book that I would like to have written”. Well, you’re saved the trouble. Of course, this signals that you agree with the author. As I read this book, these thoughts came to my mind. 

My second thought after digesting this book (and one by Ophuls that I read immediately before this one), was “Who is this guy and how did I miss him?” I haven’t found out a lot about him*, but from his website and other sources I've learned that he served in the U.S. Foreign Service and has a doctorate in political science from Yale in the early 1970s. He’s not an academic (except  for a brief, early stint). He’s written several books, three in the last few years about politics. His earlier books were among the first to deal with the issue of the politics of scarcity that we face. I believe that he’s way out in front of the pack on this, even ahead of younger colleagues like Thomas Homer-Dixon (who provides a complimentary blurb for the book on Amazon). 

So what’s so great about this book? You could start with one word in the title. “Plato”: the fountain of Western philosophy, the incarnation of wisdom, and the enemy of the “open society” (Popper). Writing over two millennia ago, Plato, like all great thinkers, is rooted in his time and culture, and his thought is complex and given to varying interpretations. His most influential work (at least for politics), The Republic, is so full of ideas and seeming contradictions that one isn’t quite sure how to respond to it. And this is where Ophuls moves us to a new way of thinking about Plato and his thought. Plato, he argues, along with Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau, understand the importance of community. Smaller communities, in the sense of smaller, more agrarian societies, are what the future holds for us. Ophuls summarizes his project: 

This book completes the task I set myself many years ago—to find a humane and effective political response to the challenge of ecological scarcity. The challenge arises from an ensemble of interlocking biological, geological, and physical limits that now threatens the welfare and possibly the existence of industrial civilization.

Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology. The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Why does Ophuls believe that industrial civilization will undergo significant changes? Ophuls appropriately and successfully incorporates other disciplines into his thinking (as any thinker wanting to breakthrough must). Ophuls bases his diagnoses on the ecological limits of industrial civilization that are rooted in the law of entropy. Any system needs an influx of energy to ward off entropy, and our industrial civilization, based on fossil fuels, faces physical limits on the supply of those fuels and limits on the amount of waste that we can dump into the biosphere. Ophuls concludes that this just can’t continue. Ophuls states: “To be blunt, modern political economy is contradicted root and branch by ecology”. Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (p. 42). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Ophuls addresses the physics, biology, and ecology that supports the statement just quoted. Science has outgrown the simple mechanical models that began with Descartes and Newton and that helped foster a liberal society and the Industrial Revolution. But much of social science and political thinking hasn’t caught up and appreciated the new science (with some significant exceptions). (He also discusses the value of Plato’s thought viz. new perspectives in natural science and psychology.) 

Ophuls realizes that the changes we face will not come easily. He turns to Carl Jung as foremost among those who can help us understand ourselves and the depths of our minds that reflect the “2,ooo,ooo year-old man inside us”. He draws upon the natural law tradition (now out of favor but still alive) to provide an ecological view of individuals and society. He identifies a break in political thinking beginning with Hobbes that gives intellectual birth to our liberal, modern society: 

To make a long story short, all modern polity is rooted in Hobbes’s rejection of the classical conception of the polity—namely, that the state has a duty to make men and women virtuous in accordance with some communal ideal. Instead, said Hobbes, let individuals follow their own ideals and pursue their own ends with the state acting simply as a referee to prevent injury or harm to others. Hence, the function of the state is purely instrumental: it keeps the peace and relegates morality to the private sphere.

Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (p. 16). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

 Leo Strauss (according to Dennis Dalton) places “the break” in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In my own study of the tradition of political thought, I've long noted a difference that begins with Machiavelli and Hobbes: a shift of emphasis from justice and a just society to a focus on liberty and individuality. But wherever we locate the break in history, it occurred, and we need to move to a new understanding of our society and our individuality. Ophuls isn’t programmatic about how we can realize a just, ecological society and still retain the benefits that liberty has bestowed upon us, but this is—at least for now—perhaps an impossible task that will only coalesce over time. He does, however, offer a suggestion of where we might find prototypes for this new order, and this is where Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau come into play. 

Ophuls believes that communities along the lines of the Greek city-states, Rousseau’s vision of community (decidedly not that embodied in revolutionary France), and Jefferson’s agrarian ideal provide us the best prototypes of future polities. It is at this point that I have the most hesitation with Ophuls’s argument. Each thinker, Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau, has a shadow side to his project, perhaps in part because of misinterpretation by later commentators and readers, but nonetheless real. Each has a utopian aspect to his thought, each celebrates the agrarian over the city, and each tradition has never been realized in an existing polity. Take Jefferson as the one whom we might think of as the obvious counter-example to my point. As Ophuls notes, Jefferson was the least programmatic of these thinkers and the one with the most practical political experience. But while Jefferson drafted the Declaration, he missed the hard-fought political battles involved in forming a working government embodied in the Constitution and argued by The Federalist. As president, Jefferson’s ideal of a small, agrarian republic went by the wayside. We talked Jefferson; we lived Hamilton.  And under the historical circumstances, Hamilton had the greater foresight and more considered structures of thought and government. So while these traditions are valuable and should be mined, we have to retain and incorporate the liberal tradition and civilization—the life of the cities. For instance, someone like Lewis Mumford, the great American humanist and commentator on cities, provides some useful perspectives that might help us bridge these traditions. All of this is an ongoing project, so final answers aren’t in the offing, and it will be hard. 

With the list of Plato, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Thoreau, you might think Ophuls just this side of a libertarian, agrarian radical. But consider this: 

To mention Burke is to see that ecology, because it is grounded in evolution, has fundamentally conservative political implications. A long process of trial and error has weeded out the bad innovations, leaving behind what has stood the test of time. The result may not be perfect, but it is probably the best that can be accomplished with the materials at hand. Evolution or ecology should not be used to justify wealth and privilege or inherited evils, but it does imply a Burkean stance toward change. There is a kind of wisdom contained in the system—biological or social—that we would be wise to study and understand before we launch “reforms” based on our “progressive” ideas.

Ophuls, Patrick (2011-08-19). Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (p. 41). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

With each review of an outstanding book, I have to stop with a sense that I haven’t done justice to it, and that’s certainly true here. If I could recommend one book as a blueprint for political and social thought for the future, this is my choice. Ophuls had me when I reviewed—as I often do—the bibliographic essay and notes before reading his text. He’s learned from many of the same pioneers that I have, and many others that are new to me. Going in, I want a sense of where the author comes from, and here I learned that we’ve explored much of the same intellectual territory. But my enthusiasm comes from more than a shared history of reading. Patrick (William) Ophuls has put together a call to understanding and action worth reading and contemplating, and one that we ignore only at our peril. 

Next, I will wrestle with his book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, about how civilizations go to hell in a hand basket, now and always. 

William a/k/a Patrick Ophuls
* Hold the press! His real name is Patrick Ophuls but he used the pen name William Ophuls.  While searching Amazon under both names, I came across this from a blurb for a book (Buddha Takes No Prisoners)(2012) he wrote with a forward by Jack Kornfield: 


Patrick Ophuls graduated in 1955 from Princeton University with a degree in Near Eastern area studies and obtained a PhD from Yale in political science in 1973. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1959, was a political analyst on the Afghanistan desk at the State Department, and was also posted to American embassies in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Tokyo, Japan, as a personal aide to two ambassadors. Leaving the Foreign Service in 1967, he became a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Patrick Ophuls has practiced insight meditation intensively for over 30 years. He began sitting with the Thai teacher Dhiravamsa in 1974, graduating from his teacher training program in 1977 and going on to assist him during several retreats in 1978. He began studying with Insight Meditation Society founders Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg in the late seventies, an association that continues to this day.

 The plot thickens!